Chego is the Korean equivalent of umami; I think the rough English translation of both words is bomb ass. Because that is what Korean rice bowl joint Chego! is, from the food prepared with heart to the service sprinkled with TLC to the décor filled with kitsch. We will take each of those high points in order.
Heart in a Bowl.
Roy Choi is known as Papi to some, better known as the Kogi guy to all. Chef Roy is the guy whose food started the food truck revolution in this city with the pretty damned awesome Kogi BBQ truck. From there, a food truck explosion. Yet, I bet that after the smoggy dust is settled in a few years, Kogi will be the only one of a very few with gas left in its tank. Why? Simple: the food is delicious, you can’t really get what they’re selling anywhere else, and Roy’s not trying to rip you off. A fat short rib burrito is $5; some of the best sliders in this city are paired and offered at $5. Affordable sophistication for masses – that’s how the Kogi truck rolls.
I mention all this to say that Chego is at once the same and very different from Kogi. The same because Chef Roy is still aiming towards affordable sophistication – Chego’s tagline, after all, is “Chillax peasant food for the soul.” And yet, different, because where Kogi mashes Korean staples with Mexican street cuisine, Chef Roy focuses on Korean comfort food, period. These are rice bowls, pure and (somewhat) simple. The flavors are unabashedly bold, multilayered, and, where appropriate, hot. The menu amusingly states that dishes are rated “PG13” for spiciness. Don’t say they didn’t warn you.
On to the food, after the jump.
If you can stand the heat, though, you’re welcome in the kitchen. The food stands for itself, as it must, because there’s no dishware to distract you from the food. Everything is served in fully biodegradable paper bowls and plates. You pick up earth-friendly plastic forks and spoons and sporks from the back after you place your order at the counter and get a number. Ah, I know some folks quibble a bit with the DIY nature of Chego, but if that’s the battle you’re going to choose, you’ve already lost the war. The bowls are priced at $7-9 each; for that price and quality (on the Westside, no less), I’d go in the kitchen and help them make my bowl. In the words of Home Depot, let’s build something together.
Back to the food. Charred asparagus. Like asking for your burger on the char at Fatburger, this is a massive improvement on the original.
I would have been perfectly satisfied if I just got some perfectly roasted asparagus (because that in it of itself is hard to find) (looking at you, Morton’s), but no. Chef Roy has to make like he’s shooting for a 5 on the AP test: Subject Asparagus, and throws on blueberry salsa, garlic, and chili to top it all off. Yes, blueberry. Salsa. It’s a lot of flavor all at once; if you need to temper it a little, go back to your schoolyard days and eat this the way you ate nacho cheese chips: take the sauce-less spears from the bottom and bring them up to the top to get their due. Rinse and repeat.
On a separate visit, a friend of mine ordered the fries. Oh, so simple, right? These are double-fried fries and definitely in the running for best fries in the city. The special for the last two weeks has been “Ooey Gooey fries” which are like the animal-style fries at In-N-Out, if In-N-Out were run by Koreans and not a Christian family who does sneaky things like hide Biblical cites underneath your cup of Dr. Pepper (don’t get me wrong, though, I love In-N-Out).
Now, the main attraction: bowls. The One Chubby Pork Belly has emerged as the one bowl to rule them all.
If you looked at plump Wilbur in his stall, and tried to think about whether you wanted to buy him despite the fact that a spider said he was humble (who can trust the web these days?), you likely would first take examine his belly. This is where the bacon and, of course, the pork belly come from – in other words, the best part of the pig. Pork belly is sort of a fad in American cuisine, but in Asian cookery, it’s pretty much everywhere. It is deliciously fatty, but dangerously so as well, because if there is too much fat and/or it’s overcooked to dry blubber, it can be pretty disgusting. Here, you have generous meaty slices of crispy pork belly. The slices melt a little in the bowl, and the rice sops it up eagerly. A fried egg is placed on top, and you have one excellent bowl of rice. $8.
My new favorite, though, is the Steak in the Heart (<– heh, vampire pun): prime rib tenderly placed between two hot, charred slices of hot La Brea bakery bread. Unfortunately, we devoured this one way before I even thought about taking a picture of it. Guess I’m an eater first, food blogger second. $8.
In addition to a vegetarian dish on the weekly specials menu, Chego also offers a buttered kimchi tofu bowl, which is vegetarian so long as you ask for it sans chichironnes. I’ve tasted this twice now, and it’s everything it says it is: buttery, kimchi, tofu. This isn’t my favorite bowl (I bowl meat), but every person I’ve been with who has chosen this bowl has walked away very, very happy, and with plenty of leftovers. With the kimchi playing a prominent role, this one definitely is rated PG-13. A friend of mine thought it should have been rated R, but I think that’s because she hasn’t seen that many R-rated movies. $7.
I can’t stress it enough: the flavors here pack a punch. But, it’s like a familiar punch you got from your brother as a kid. While I’m not Korean (I’m Vietnamese), my best friend from pre-kindergarten to second-ish grade was Korean. Every day after school, we’d go to her house and do “homework” (Asian parents always make sure that their 5 year old kids have homework to do after school) and build fortresses from cardboard and doodle on paper scraps. And, every once in a while, I would stay for dinner and eat the homiest of Korean food: kimchi out of the jar, juk (porridge), and bimbimbap. When I’m at Chego, I get a bit of a childhood flashback. A warm belly, fond memories, cardboard fortresses, and paper dreams.
Heart on a Sleeve.
As I mentioned a few days ago when talking about Starry Kitchen, it is rare, I think, to find a place – any place – where you walk in and can really bask in the glow of the people who own it. Nguyen and Thi Tran manage to impart that glow with their enthusiasm at Starry Kitchen; similarly, the Chego folks not only fully believe in the food they’re making, they’re so happy to see you try it out too. Roy is on hand to survey his creation; a two-hand shake welcomes you to Chego and asks if everything is ok. He’s a quiet man, this Roy, but his presence speaks volumes. The cashier patiently and eagerly explains the rotating menu of specials to you, even though there is an enormous line snaking out the door. Alice is there on most nights – she’s the best dressed one, who can psychoanalyze the characters in Lost and Battlestar Galactica before switching gears and explaining why the Ohmmm rice (a special of the week) epitomizes her childhood in a bowl. And everyone pitches in to clear the tables to free up space for what is often a standing room only crowd – the real estate here is scarce, so grab what you can, when you can. If all else fails, join others outside, who got their bowls to go and are just eating on the curb, taco-truck style.
Heart. (not the band, but “Barracuda” was blasting from the speakers one night)
One of the best parts of Chego – oh, but there are so many – is the living wall, and I’m not talking about Mozza’s edible wall o’ veggies. At Chego, the living wall represents another kind sustainability – the community. The shelves lining the back walls are filled with trinkets, toys, and everything in between, all donated by Chego’s families and friends.
You can bring your own contribution to the wall (that circa-1998 McFarland Scully action figure standing, with arms raised, next to Buddha in the back corner there? Used to sit on my desk. She’s happier next to Buddha, I think, as we all might be). Or, you can sit there and try to figure out what lucky person had Pee-Wee Herman and Chairy dolls to give.
Community is important to Chego, as it flows naturally from Chef Roy and the crew. Roy grew up in LA; his food is LA. At a panel last year hosted by Zocalo Public Square, he talked about tapping into the community beat that plays every night from Alvardo to Crenshaw, from Venice up to Melrose:
You remember that scene in Ratatouille where the snotty French critic takes but a sip of Remy’s French onion soup, and it so powerfully harks back to the memory of his childhood that, faster than you can say dolly zoom, he goes from being Simon Cowell to Jacques Pepin writing lovingly about his mother’s home cooked meals in The Apprentice? Yes, that is what Chego is to me. As my best friend put it the other night after contemplating the Steak in the Heart sandwich: “I feel like I can be a better person now.”
This feeling of community and familiarity is maybe the reason why I keep coming back. Yes, you absolutely can get get a $4 rice bowl in K-town, in the valley, or in my home town of Cerritos, and you’ll get a lot of rice, a lot of veggies, and a lot of meat. But, that’s not what Chego is going for. Starry Kitchen gets away with charging this Vietnamese over $5 for a banh mi sandwich in part because it actually is really good, and in part because I really respect what they’re trying to do. Similarly, Chego is going for a different type of Korean comfort food to entertain and challenge you. The robust bowls remind me of an episode of Mark Bittman’s Bittman Takes On… (which was highly entertaining, and much more so than his recent how-I-spent-my-summer-vacation series with Gwyneth Paltrow) where Suzanne Goin (she of Lucques and AOC) popped in and showed Bittman how she created a stuffed chicken leg by heaping flavor upon flavor on that leg over the course of some 12-odd hours. In case you’ve never cooked anything from her supremely awesome Sunday Suppers at Lucques cookbook, this is typical: her dishes often take a lo-ong time because they have more layers than a Gap model. For his dish, Bittman cribbed from her techniques and made a somewhat similar meal in far less time. Both probably equally great, but in totally different ways that almost make them impossible to compare. I think Chef Roy at Chego is more Goin than Bittman – without minimizing Bittman’s minimalism, Roy’s not trying to give you a $4 Bittman bowl. He’s trying to be the crazy, tattooed, pot-smoking cousin of the rice bowl. You can come over if you want, when you want.
Chego is heart in a bowl. Charlotte couldn’t have spun a better tale.
Chego is located at 3300 Overland, in Palms. They’re open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner only, 6pm-midnight. The parking lot is tiny, and parking in the neighborhood sometimes is difficult. Peak time seems to be between 6 and 8; if you can stave off your hunger until after then, parking shouldn’t be too hard.